Denali Park chief pleased some park users, frustrated others

Posted: Wednesday, December 26, 2001

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Running Denali National Park and Preserve is not an easy job but Steve Martin handled it well, say citizens and other government officials who worked with him.

After seven years as superintendent of Alaska's most popular park Martin is leaving to run Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming.

Nancy Bale, president of the Denali Citizens Council, said Martin bore up under the inevitable pressures from politicians, and from tourism, snowmachine and development interests and made most people feel as if their concerns had been heard.

From tourism representatives and conservationists to state and borough officials, most people said they liked and respected Martin, even if they disagreed with him.

''He left the park a better place,'' Bale said.

His popularity was not universal. In particular, representatives from snowmachine groups and some private landowners inside the park said they would not miss Martin.

''I'm so pleased that he's finally getting out of here,'' said Joe Gauna of the Alaska State Snowmobile Association.

Snowmachining turned into one of the main controversies of Martin's tenure. That will be an issue that follows him to his new job at Grand Teton, where park officials are preparing an environmental study on snowmachine use in Grand Teton and Yellowstone.

Last year, two snowmachine groups sued the National Park Service after the agency banned riding in the core part of Denali, the 2 million acres once known as Mount McKinley National Park. In 1980 the name changed, and Congress tripled the size of the park. The groups have since agreed to drop their lawsuit while they work out a deal with Interior Department and Congress to try to reverse that ban.

At the crux of the issue is whether snowmachine use is a ''traditional activity'' within the old McKinley park area. Skiers and dog mushers said snowmachines were never used in that area and should not be allowed now. Snowmobilers said they used the area, but nobody noticed.

Martin ruled on the side of quiet recreation, though he said he doesn't see it that way.

''We have really tried not be on one side on the other,'' Martin said. ''We feel there has to be a balance struck, and we are working to accommodate snowmachines in other areas.''

Ray Kreig, chairman of Kantishna Inholders Association, a group that represents private landowners inside the park, said he thinks Martin worked broadly to limit access and tourism development in Denali by buying out inholders or making development difficult.

During Martin's time, the Park Service has bought out many of the Denali inholdings. And as of last week, the park was trying to close a purchase of one of the highest profile parcels, a 20-acre piece of land in the Kantishna Hills at Spruce Creek. One of the owners of that property, Jeff Barney, said he found Martin tough but fair.

Martin said he has tried to balance park protection with developing new opportunities for visitors.

He directed his staff to focus mainly on improving facilities around the main entrance. There, the park expanded campgrounds, built new trails and obtained funding for a new visitor center and science center scheduled to be built by 2004. Martin also pressed forward with plans to develop the southern side of the park, on the south slopes of the Alaska Range. Those plans are now on hold because of stiff resistance from a diverse group, Martin said.

Martin said he and his wife, Cyd Martin, who also works for the Park Service, will miss Alaska and its people. Before working at Denali, he was superintendent of Gates of the Arctic National Park.

John Quinley, spokesman for the Park Service in Alaska, said the agency is looking for someone who will work equally well with the community yet also stand behind tough decisions.

''Anyone who enters that job has to have a very tough skin,'' Quinley said. ''There are lots of opinions about Denali and people are not shy about expressing them.''

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